Charlie Fenske’s first word as an infant was “bird.”
One of his childhood Halloween costumes, which he designed and fashioned almost entirely on his own, was a silver NASA rocket with the American flag on the front.
Ever since Charlie uttered his first words, his family knew he had a passion for anything that soars through the sky. It started with assembling balsa airplanes and model rockets in the basement. Over the years, his interest in flying machines grew, and his family did everything they could to foster that interest.
Charlie’s mother Caroline supported her son’s enthusiasm and provided opportunities for him to explore the vast expanse of his abilities. “When he chose to tinker and invent things, we really valued that initiative,” said Caroline. “You are born with some of those talents, but part of it is a lot of exposure.”
The website chooses 50 teens who achieve incredible feats across a broad range of fields and interests. All 50 have done different things to benefit society.
For 18-year-old Charlie, it’s making a cheaper, faster, more efficient rocket.
Now committed to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Charlie said he hopes to boost his knowledge of aerospace and engineering to new heights by collaborating with some of the greatest minds in the world.
His family would often visit Epcot at Disney World in Florida, and spent time at the Kennedy Space Center. Charlie interned at the Kennedy Space Center in 2017, and learned as much as he could about rocket and flight technologies.
Caroline said that even as a child, Charlie was largely independent, and always liked doing things for himself. “It’s all totally internalized,” said Caroline. “It doesn’t come from anyone else.”
Charlie wanted to test his engineering prowess and challenge himself, so he applied all the knowledge he had gained over the years and entered the Falmouth Academy Science Fair. After winning first place in the fair, his science and engineering career blasted off.
In 2016, he won the Virgin Galactic Pioneer Award at the Google Science Fair. In 2017 he won second place in engineering at the 2017 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, as well as first place at the 2017 Massachusetts State Science and Engineering Fair.
According to Lalise Melillo, a retired rhetoric teacher at Falmouth Academy who worked closely with Charlie, he is multitalented and has a “blend of humility and the right kind of ambition.”
Melillo said communication skills are essential when presenting a project to an audience. A scientist or engineer must connect with the audience and convey complex ideas in an understandable and down-to-earth way. According to Melillo, Charlie not only achieves this equilibrium of in-depth knowledge and relatability in his talks and presentations, he does so with compassion and fervor. “He is so interested in his audience and their understanding of the subject,” said Melillo.
When working in aeronautics, or any science and engineering field, persistence is key. Melillo said Charlie has that persistence, and he doesn’t let failure hold him back.
“He works with something till he gets it,” said Melillo. “Watching him grow has been one of the most rewarding experiences I have had as a rhetoric coach.”
The young scientist is also a student pilot, and loves flying at Katama Airfield. He has been a Boy Scout since he was a child, and was awarded the title of Eagle Scout in 2017, an honor that very few scouts receive. Eagle Scouts are dedicated to serving the community and must have incredible leadership skills, according to the National Eagle Scout Association website.
Rob Wells is a history teacher at Falmouth Academy who served as both the athletics director and head of schools. He worked closely with Charlie during his time at the academy, and came to know him as more than just a lover of science and engineering.
“He is an omnivore when it comes to learning about things,” Wells said. He said that although there is an element of Charlie’s mind that is always thinking about the engineering aspect of things, he enjoys learning about many different topics, such as history and writing.
“He is a very focused person, no matter what he is doing,” Wells said. “There is a long-term goal, and he realises what is necessary to reach that goal.”
Not only does Charlie work tirelessly toward his ambitions, according to Wells, he enjoys every step along the way.
And Charlie isn’t at all reluctant to give and take. Wells said part of the young scientist’s success is the fact that he opens his mind to different opinions and ideas, and has a certain playfulness that allows him to excel in a number of different environments.
“He is actually a very athletic kid,” Wells said.
Charlie is a black belt in karate, a degree of proficiency that requires strength, stamina, and agility.
Wells said Charlie is not at all opposed to tossing a Frisbee around with his friends or scaling a rock wall: “He loves new experiences, and enjoys challenging himself.”
Charlie said that being named as one of the top 50 smartest teens in the world shocked him, but didn’t necessarily excite him. “I have been getting media attention for a while now,” Charlie said. “I’m in it for the science. If I have a breakthrough in my work, that’s when I get really excited.”
For Charlie, science is a constant — he never stops testing, predicting, hypothesising, and analyzing. “It’s something that is always on my mind, no matter what I am doing,” Charlie said.
When asked about his future at MIT, Charlie was steadfast in his interest in the aerospace program. He said that he is excited to be around students who share his interests, and to have access to the school’s advanced laboratories.
He said he can’t wait to further his education and continue to dedicate himself to science. “When I think about the possibility of signing with a major aerospace company or even making my own, I just think about the steps I need to take to get there,” Charlie said. “It all starts with a big dream or a crazy idea.”